Soft Power Politics

  • Share
  • Read Later
On this latest presidential trip to Europe, Bill Clinton traveled from Lisbon to Berlin and Moscow across three time zones, but two centuries. The 15-nation summit on "Progressive Governance" in Berlin call it the New Age Socialist International was strictly now. Left-center leaders from all over, plus assorted think-tankers and intellectuals, debated the usual-suspect issues that dominate the Davos agenda or Bill and Hillary's Renaissance Weekends. How to adapt to the "New Economy," how to rein in financial turmoil, how to strike a new balance between Europe's bloated welfare states and the demands of a global market.

Then, it was off to Moscow to size up Vladimir Putin, the new Russian President and back to the 19th century. It was an encounter between the "last remaining superpower" and a has-been with unshakable geopolitical ambitions. Clinton and Putin must have talked about America's dwindling financial largesse, too, but the old stuff was the main fare on their plates. Call it polite power politics. The agenda ranged from Star Wars Mark II to Russian aid for Iran's nuclear establishment that might be turned to military purpose.

Berlin and Moscow are two different games with two different sets of rules. Clinton vs. Putin is the old zero-sum game of nations: What I win, you lose. If the U.S. actually fields an effective missile defense, it won't just be the "rogue states" that are frustrated; Russia's missiles and its military clout will be devalued as well.

The name of the Berlin game, though, is non-zero-sum: You and I win or lose together, which means that we better cooperate. For if we build trade walls, impose "cultural exceptions" on movies, throw up dams against capital flows, all our economies will suffer. Our consumers will end up with shoddier goods at higher prices, our producers will lose profitable export markets, and our workers jobs.

So why not stick to different rules in different arenas cricket here, soccer there? The problem with the 21st century E.U.-U.S. game is the persistence, indeed, return of much older reflexes. Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, likes to call the U.S. a "hyperpower"; German backbenchers mumble about American "hegemonism." The unspoken prescription is the revival of balance-of-power politics, with Europe containing and constraining its old ally's might.

This is surely one impulse behind the euro as a competing currency, the plan for a 60,000-man European intervention force, and the call for a federalizing Europe, as recently uttered by German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. These are all good things in their own right why shouldn't Europe, as rich and as populous as the U.S., police its own backyard in the Balkans?

The problem is that the 21st century game cannot be played by 19th century rules. Real hegemonists like Napoleon were out to conquer and subjugate. But this century's No. 1 is more of a bumbling elephant than a rapacious carnivore. Also, the U.S.'s main asset in the rivalry with Europe is not "hard power" guns, ships and planes but "soft power," as the U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye calls it. "Soft power" is Harvard and Hollywood, McDonald's and Microsoft the stuff of temptation not menace.

How do you balance against "soft power"? Against Napoleon, Europe harnessed superior military force. But how do you slay Stanford or Hollywood, especially when Europe's best and brightest would rather seek their fortune in Silicon Valley than the Ruhr Valley? Keeping out American movies won't make the French kind succeed any better in the global market. Nor will an alliance of Europe's underfunded universities dent the dominance of Harvard et al.

So no matter how loudly Europeans gripe about U.S. hegemony, the Berlin game will (or ought to) prevail. Not only do all the advanced nations face the same problems crying out for international cooperation. In their hearts, the Europeans also know that American power can only be bested by internal effort, not balanced by 19th century-type coalitions. Europe has to get up earlier and work harder.

This is the true significance of the New Age Berlin International. Only a couple of years ago, Europe's social democratic governments were bulwarks of the status quo. Today, the Blairs, Schrders and Jospins understand that Europe can only prevail by emphasizing markets over welfare, by unleashing competition where cozy insider cartels ruled in the past. Today, it is the chastened left that has picked up the banner of reform, and Europe suddenly no longer looks like a turgid backwater.

The race for modernity's prize has already begun, but it is a contest encased in cooperation. Which delivers a reassuring contrast to the bloody power politics of the 19th century. In the traditional struggle for strategic advantage, my gain was your loss. Today, both sides win and lose together and they know it.